Melinda Wallin, executive director of the Catoosa County Development Authority, said her agency annually nominates local companies for several state awards. She is pleased that a local manufacturer, Habitat International Inc., received the honor.
“This achievement and the high recognition it brings to Habitat International reflect a special appreciation for their outstanding commitment to grow and prosper in Georgia,” said David Luckie, president of Georgia Economic Developers Association, or GEDA, in the letter announcing Habitat’s selection.
Habitat International, which manufactures needle-punch carpets, putting greens and putting cups, received the honor April 16 during the GEDA luncheon in Atlanta, where Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor delivered the keynote speech.
Wallin commended David Morris, chief executive officer of Habitat, for his low employee turnover and success with his employees, many of whom are mentally or physically challenged.
“I proudly claim to have played a role in the unshackling of a few of society’s disadvantaged and downtrodden,” Morris said. “But I am no less humbled, for we ‘normal’ people at Habitat have benefited immeasurably from those we helped. They unshackled us, too — unshackled our hearts.”
Connie Presnell, plant team manager, said the most rewarding part of her 12 years with Habitat has been “watching people grow.”
Morris, originally from New York, moved to the Chattanooga area when he was 11 years old. He established his company 21 years ago as a sales organization. Then his father, president of a carpet company, joined the team. No one guessed that the company would eventually have a factory with art, murals, gardens, fish ponds, sculpture, music everywhere and an in-house radio station, he said.
Much of the décor reflects Morris’ appreciation for Asian culture. Morris follows Buddhist spirituality and philosophy, believing the workplace should contribute to the betterment of its employees and society, he said.
Employees created the art displayed around the factory, and the music soothes schizophrenic workers so they can focus on their jobs, he said. The employees produce 50,000 rugs weekly and helped push the company past $8 million in annual sales. The number of employees fluctuates with the economy, but Habitat generally employees about 50 people.
Habitat counts Wal-mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Sears among its customers, he said. The company has a worldwide market for its carpet runners, mats, rugs and putting greens and cups. The company has branched off to produce decorative and functional steel products, such as full-size animal sculptures, human silhouettes, hose reels and pet food holders.
Habitat is a family
Morris had his first experience with the mentally challenged years ago with his former sister-in-law, who had Down’s Syndrome, he said. By challenging her and offering positive reinforcements, she surprised him with her accomplishments, he said.
This experience inspired him and his father to hire a few mentally challenged employees. He said as the company expanded, they hire more mentally challenged employees.
“We gave them an opportunity, and because we did so, they gave us the valuable assets of team spirit and devotion,” Morris said.
Morris faced disheartening obstacles from state and federal agencies, as well as private organizations, demanding adherence to complex regulations for employing the mentally challenged.
“Those bureaucracies seemed interested only in numbers and dollars instead of recognizing the hard-fought, step-by-step personal growth and successes of our eager employees,” he said.
Habitat’s management worked directly with individuals and their families to overcome the obstacles and employ those who typically would have been on government assistance and relegated to institutions, Morris said. Those people have become financially independent citizens of the workplace and the community.
Over time, Habitat also employed those who are physically challenged or mentally ill, he said. They also hired people suffering from alcoholism, brain injuries, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness and autism.
“We offered them and their families genuine caring and a real chance,” he said. Some employees learned to live independently, drive cars and attend school.
The company also employees a number of Russian, Cambodian, Thai and Laotian immigrants, some of whom speak little or no English; however, “language is not a barrier” to learning about each other’s cultures, languages and foods, and Morris said.
Habitat has been profiled numerous times by local and national television programs and publications, including CNN and Southern Living and Nation’s Business magazines.
In addition to the GEDA award, Habitat has received the Employer of the Year Award from Tri-County Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and the Award of Distinction for Making Innovative Products. In 1999, Habitat received the Blue Chip Enterprise Award, which recognizes companies that overcome adversity, seize opportunities and help other small businesses solve problems.
to public education
Initially, Habitat’s management hid the fact that about 75 percent of the company’s workforce suffers from a disability, fearing the media and public would pity the employees, he said. Once Morris began receiving positive feedback, he consented to tell Habitat’s story and open his factory doors to the media.
He also prints Habitat’s story on product packaging, where dozens of people each month read the story and write Habitat’s management to thank them for helping break down social barriers and teach compassion. These heartfelt letters probably means more to Morris than any of his corporate awards.
Habitat’s management and employees also receive gratification when former employees move into other jobs. Presnell, who worked eight years with disabled people for the state, and the other Habitat management encourage employees to develop skills and self-confidence and to move on to other jobs if they want “because not everyone wants to work in a factory,” she said.
One former employee left Habitat and fulfilled his life’s dream of becoming a security guard, she said. Another employee, who lost several jobs before coming to Habitat five years ago, has developed self-confidence and purchased a new car.
“Special education is (also) very important to us,” Morris said. Habitat’s management and employees work with Ridgeland High School students who receive special education services so the next generation of business and community leaders will not fear the physically and mentally challenged, he said.
Morris defies visitors to his plant to guess whether an employee is disabled and how; rather, he show visitors a factory filled with hard-working, productive and self-confident employees — the kind of staff any executive would be glad to have